Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dearest Grandma: Hyggelig å møte deg?

The topic for the 41st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy is:
If you could have dinner with four of your ancestors who would they be and why? Would you have dinner in the present day or in one of their eras? Would you dine out or opt for a home cooked meal? What would you discuss at the dinner table? What would you most like to share with them about your life?

After reading about the next Carnival topic, I came to the quick conclusion that I would have to get together with all four of my mother's Norwegian-born great grandmothers. I actually got tears in my eyes on the drive home that day while thinking about meeting them. It will never really happen, of course, but I feel a little closer to it by fooling myself with my own imagination.

Why so much emotion? Some of it might be attributable to mid-life hormones, who knows. But, you see, I've never had a grandmother, and the thought of meeting four at once is pleasantly overwhelming. My own grandmother passed away when Mom was less than two years old, and her presence in our lives has been sorely missed.

But first, let me introduce you to my maternal great-great-grandmothers: four Norwegian immigrant pioneer women who sacrificed all for the benefit of their families. (The child that is my great grandparent is in brackets.)

Thibertine Johnson Winje

Thibertine (Bertina) Johnson Winje

Born: Thibertine Olsdatter Lassemo,
Grong, Nord Trondelag, Norway; 8 Jan. 1841.
Died: Detroit Lakes, Becker CO., MN; 15 Feb. 1930 (age 89).
Spouses: Baard Johnson (1835-1872); Eric L. Winje (1850-1930).
Ten children: [Ole M.], Julia, Regina, Louis, Lena, Emma M., Emma T., Edward, Hattie, and Annie.

Immigrated to Goodhue County., MN in 1866.

Kjersten Vigesaa Larson
Kjersten Vigesaa Larson

Born: Kjersten Olsdatter Stromstad,
Helleland, Rogaland, Norway; 15 June 1823.
Died: Granite Falls Township, Chippewa CO., MN; 28 Jan. 1917 (age 93).
Spouse: Erik Vigesaa Larson (1808-1891).
Seven children: Severine, Karen, Louis, Ole, Andrew, Ivar Ludwig, and [Malla].
Immigrated to La Crosse County, WI, in 1862.

Karen Bue Berge
Karen Bue Berge

Born: Karen Olsdatter Bue,
Faaberg, Oppland, Norway; 19 Aug. 1839.
Died: Yellow Medicine CO., MN; 4 Sept. 1914 (age 75).

Spouse: Gulbran Olsen Berge (1835-1882). Seven children: Othilie, [Ole Benhart], Gunda C., Gunda Caroline, Bertha, Jorgen, Sophia.
Immigrated to Chippewa County, MN in 1869.

Anne Vaterland Sloan
Anne (Slaaen) Sloan

Born: Anne Thorsdatter Vaterland,

Faaberg, Oppland, Norway; 20 May 1833.Died: Chippewa CO., MN; 11 Jan. 1918 (age 85).

Spouse: Hans Thorsen Slaaen (1826-1898). Six children: Thor H., Mathia, Karen, Thorvald, John T., and [Anne Marie].
Immigrated to Coon Valley, Vernon County, WI in 1853.

I selected these ladies for several reasons. Having lived in Norway, they would have a living memory of people and early conditions there--the "old ways." They would also be able to tell stories about the risk-filled, eventful transatlantic journeys aboard disease ridden sailing ships and reveal trials and successes they encountered once on American soil. And, if I did skip over the chance of meeting my great grandparents in favor of the next eldest generation, I would still learn about them because my g g grandmas would certainly be willing to talk about their own children. Also, if no men are within earshot during our visit, they might even reveal a few foibles about their husbands and brothers, too.

I would choose to go back in time to about 1900, when each tippoldemor (great grandmother) was old enough to have lived a pretty full life, but young enough to be vibrant and clear in their memory. Why not bring them into the future? Because the object is to get to know them and their ways, and not to scare them silly.

We have seen more change over the past few decades, since my parents first marveled at "I Love Lucy" coming through our old Packard Bell television set, than our pre-20th century ancestors experienced over centuries of rural living in Norway, with the exception of perhaps the steam engine. Malla Larson Johnson (daughter of my g g grandma, Kjersten Larson) was actually afraid of electric lights when they finally arrived on her Clearwater County, Minnesota farm in the mid-1940s. Power lines were a long time in coming because it took many years for work crews to dig holes for all the necessary light poles in rural areas. Can you imagine the intense stimulation and fear someone from the past would feel if dropped into our century, especially an elderly person? I have to close my eyes and grimace at the thought.

Dearest Grandma, Hyggelig å møte deg? (how are you)?

This is a phrase I might never be able to use, since I would choose to learn about my little grandmas by blending into their time period as much as possible. Sure, I would probably mangle my masquerade as a good Norwegian-American pioneer girl, but let's give it a whirl.

Chippewa County, Minnesota is the location where my four g g grandmas eventually all settled with their husbands and family. Thank goodness, or my great grandparents would never have found each other. I have always loved the transitional feel of September, when the lowering afternoon sun shines like fire through tree branches, and the mornings are misty and mild. A Sunday in mid-September would be perfect. Though summer was the busiest season of year on a homestead, it was also the time that farming families could enjoy good weather and make rounds of visits with friends and relations.

I would invite each grandma to kaffe on a Sunday afternoon when they are more relaxed than normal, let's say, Sunday, September 16, 1900. Scandinavian-Lutheran pioneer women aspired to keeping the Sabbath holy, since the other six days of the week were sure to include endless rounds of back-breaking work. I'm not sure how they succeeded, but that was the general goal.

For the first meeting, I would put on some comfortably-worn blue calico, pull my hair back, and remove all of my jewelry. I would pretend to be a distant cousin who is, surprisingly enough, related to all of them through an ancestor who left Norway many years before they did. Due to my lack of the appropriate accent, I'd probably have to say that I was born in the wild west... which is the truth, come to think of it.

Do you think they would buy it? I'm sure they would be skeptical. They would be stiffly polite at first, but sweet, and they might ask a few indirect questions. I think they would at least be curious to see what this newcomer has to say, and whether or not she is full of herself and should be avoided in future (now, there's an interesting thought).

My mother grew up on a Minnesota farm belonging to her Norwegian-American grandparents, and although she did not personally know the generation of which I am writing, she had a few pointers for me on how my g g grandmothers might react. You bet I'm going to take advantage of her as a resource! Mom says that if the ladies are shy, like most Norwegian farm women she ever knew, they would probably not accept an invitation from a stranger, even if I claimed to be related.  I surmised that the invitation would have to be extended by a mutual friend of theirs, perhaps someone they went to church with.

Dear Mrs. [Berge],

Would you be so kind as to join me and several other ladies for coffee on Sunday, September 16, at 2:00 p.m.? A relation of yours will be staying with my family for a few days, and I am hoping to introduce you to her. Please r.s.v.p. to me through the post office, or at church next Sunday.

Respectfully yours,

Mrs. Lars Petersen

Surely there must have been a "Mrs. Lars Petersen" somewhere in Chippewa County. At the home of Mrs. Petersen, I would set a buffet table with some offerings a Norwegian might expect to find, including some of the following: vafler (waffles) with lingonberries, goat cheese, hard-boiled eggs, lefse, breads, ham, herring, fruit salad, and Norwegian cookies and cakes, including fattigmann and krumkaker. Oh, and plenty of kaffe, of course!

On a separate table, I would lay out all of my old photographs in the hope that some unknown persons might be identified. The photos could also serve as props for conversation. The problem is that coming from the future, these photographs are bound to look a little worn. This might lead each of my grandmas to raise an eyebrow ever-so-slightly and sneak glances at one another, wondering how I could take such poor care of my belongings. "Strike One" for the wannabe Norwegian-American pioneer girl.

You may notice that all four of my g g grandmas look quite similar. I'm sure they were similar in their ways, as well. They were all Norwegian, all about the same size (around five feet in height), and all of a quiet, measured countenance... shy, even. They all wore their hair pulled back with the part in the middle, as was the practical custom for Scandinavian females in the 19th century. They lived hard lives, and it showed in their faces. They owned no cosmetics, used no fine lotions, had no botox treatments, and consumed no vitamins or fortified drinks to help protect their health. They spent countless hours outdoors in the wind, sun, rain, and snow. Caffeine may have been their only vice, since Norwegian-Americans learned at an early age to love coffee. It was a luxury seldom available in Norway, but it was easily attainable in the United States.

Pioneer living was especially hard on women, and even though it colored every nuance of their physical expression, it does not mean that Bertina, Kjersten, Karen, and Anne were not capable of great warmth, generosity, and even humor when appropriate. But, when they were motivated to set things right and see the work done, they could probably also be a bit critical, aloof, or demanding. They had 24-7, never-ending jobs in caring for their children, feeding and clothing their families, and supporting their husbands, neighbors, churches, and community: all from scratch. There was no "time out" for good behavior, no day at the spa, no weekend with the girls, no new spring wardrobe, and sometimes, no shelter or food either. What they had in abundance was know-how, determination, strength, faith, and sheer resilience.

I would want to hear what my grandmas have to say about their lives and families--telling their stories with those wonderful rolling accents and funnily adapted Norwegian-English phrases--and take my cues from there. Firing off questions like a reporter would be taken as prying, and I'm supposed to be a good Norwegian-American pioneer girl, remember?

I'd like to hear from Bertina about her transition from homesteader's wife to town life as the wife of an attorney and judge, and how she managed to keep on going after the loss of so many children. Karen would, no doubt, tell me of her husband's wild and woolly experiences aboard the Hannah Parr, the emigrant ship he sailed on from Bergen to Quebec in 1868. The ship was devastated in a storm and had to limp back to Limerick, Ireland for month-long repairs. Aside from the near catastrophe, this was a rather jolly stopover for some of the Norwegian travelers. You can read about it in The Irish Adventure of the Hannah Parr, my 8/10/2007 blog entry. Kjersten's life in America began in a La Crosse area sod house around the time of the southwestern Minnesota Indian massacres. Whenever her husband had to make a trip into town, some of the children would sit on the roof to watch for hostile Indians. She would have plenty of early homsteading stories, I'm sure. And, last but not least, Anne, about whom I know the least, can tell me what it was like to give birth to my great grandmother in a covered wagon as the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota. She would also have a lot of information about one of the earliest Norwegian settlements in the midwest: Coon Valley. I can tell right now that it's going to take longer than one afternoon!

Not too long ago, I had the experience of meeting some of my Berge cousins for the first time. I have not met many relations from this family line, and before a word dropped from our mouths, I felt like I knew them. I am hoping that this same sort of genetic attraction will take hold and draw my little grandmas into feeling immediately at ease with me. Then, I can come to know a bit about their world and how it fits into the perspective of history, but also how it fits into the here and now, and with who I am--a crumb of truth and understanding sought after by all genealogists and family historians.

When all the kaffe is gone, and everyone has had their fill of pastries from the floral china platters, how successful do you think my masquerade might have been? My guess is that my little grandmas might be willing to meet with me again.  In the meantime, they would spend hours discussing my spotty Norwegian sensibility, as well as the mysterious family connection. I can hear them now: "Ja, she was nice enough... but, goodness, how nosy!"


Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

The last line really made me grin! I don't know of any of my ancestors that lived in a sod house but I found the one on display at the Arch in St. Louis fascinating.

Chery Kinnick said...

Hi, Apple. Those sod houses could be cozy, but a bit drippy!

Colleen said...

Another great post. "...not to scare them silly". Thanks for starting my day with a laugh!

And those are awesome pictures!

Chery Kinnick said...

Thanks, Colleen! I've been very fortunate to acquire many photographs from relations, but oftentimes I was the one who actually had to identify the people in them.

Anonymous said...

Great photos and a great story!


Great photos. I understand now
why I like herring so much. I
didn't know it was a common food
for Norwegians.

Anne said...

How fascinating, I'd love to be there, too, for kaffe with the ggg grandmothers.